Archive for October, 2013

Not-So Spooky Halloween Cookies the Kids Will Love

Author: Meera, October 31, 2013
Not-so scaredy cats

Let the kids decorate these not-so scaredy cats, using colors they like. Add orange or black sprinkles to finish.



When you let the young ones in your family choose the cookie cutter shapes and icing  colors, you’ll get plenty of helping hands making cookies for Halloween.  I make these cookies a lot; they are perfect for any holiday and also for children’s tea parties. Just change the shape and bake and decorate.



The dough needs chilling for one hour or overnight

Wrap the dough ball before chilling



After making the dough, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour to make the dough a bit firmer for rolling out.



At my house, the favorite shapes for Halloween are cats and bats

At my house, the favorite shapes for Halloween are cats and bats



Half the fun is dumping onto the counter an assortment of cookie cutters and letting the kids choose their favorites. For Halloween, they might like ghosts, cats, bats, witches, and pumpkins. Help them roll out the cookies and place them on the cookie sheet for baking.



A tray of cat-shaped cookies will bake for 7-10 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit

A tray of cat-shaped cookies ready for the oven




Sugar Cookie Recipe




1.5 cups butter (softened if cold)


2 cups granulated sugar


4 large eggs


1 teaspoon vanilla


5 cups white all-purpose flour


2 teaspoons baking soda


1 teaspoon salt





Cream butter and sugar together.


Slowly beat in eggs and vanilla.


Add flour, baking powder, and salt and mix together until thoroughly blended and dough can be shaped into a ball.


Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour. You can also chill the dough overnight. If you don’t want to make the cookies all at once, then divide the dough into two balls to use when you want.


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.


Sprinkle flour onto a flat surface and roll out the dough to roughly 1/4 inch thickness.


Cut into shapes using your favorite cookie cutters. Arrange cookies on a baking sheet leaving 1 inch between cookies.


Bake 7 to 10 minutes.


Let cool before icing with your favorite sugar cookie icing.


A drop or two of food coloring can give you various colors of icing; , just be sure to put icing in separate bowls before adding the food coloring. Use a pastry bag with tips or even a toothpick to make designs on the iced cookie. Decorate with sprinkles.





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Red pomegranates hang like jewels in contrast to the leaves that will soon yellow and drop

Red pomegranates hang like jewels in contrast to the lush green leaves that will soon turn yellow and drop




Autumn has a arrived. The fruit and nut trees are shedding leaves and preparing for winter dormancy. Pumpkins are taking center stage for harvest festivals and Halloween decorations. Apples have been gathered are are being peeled and cored for pies and cider making.



If you are thinking about putting away your gardening gloves and stashing your trowel and wheelbarrow, hold on a minute. It’s possible to extend the growing season from summer into autumn and even later . . . by taking a few precautions.



Pumpkins show orange and yellow, signalling the arrival of the cool season

Pumpkins in my garden sport golden shades of orange and yellow, signalling arrival of the cool season



As the sun slants lower in the sky giving us shorter days, less light, and fewer hours to garden, there are some plants that will grow just fine during the cool days of fall.



However, you must select the right plants for the cool season. In addition, you’ll increase your plants’ survival rate by growing them in raised beds and boxes with good soil and aged manure. Wet them well if a cold front comes through (it’s counter-intuitive but moisture will protect their roots). Keep them warm at night with plant covers that you take off during the day when they can make the most of the sun’s warmth and light.



Consider growing some of these cool season crops: beet, bok choy, broccoli, bulb onion, chard, fava bean, garlic, green onion, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, radish, spinach, and turnip. I’ve found many of these plants available at my local DIY garden center during the past two weeks.




Coffee Cake, a variety of Fuyu persimmon will soon be picking ripe

Coffee Cake, a new variety of Fuyu persimmon I’m growing will soon be ripe for picking, slicing, and serving



For November, depending on weather conditions in local microclimates, Northern California gardeners can grow fava bean, garlic, greens, leek, lettuce, onion, pea, radish, and spinach as well as some perennial herbs, especially in boxes and/or pots on the patio or in protected places such as porches.




The pumpkin vine, now over 25 feet long, still have numerous blooms and tennis ball size green pumpkins

My pumpkin vines, over 25 feet long, still have numerous blooms and lemon-size green pumpkins hanging on




Because of Northern California’s mild Mediterranean climate, gardeners can enjoy cultivating plants from spring through the fall, not just during our hot summer months. If it gets too chilly for the poor honeybees to pollinate, get yourself a soft watercolor brush and do the pollination yourself.



Finally, it’s worth noting that during our rainy season, the water for the garden falls from the sky rather than from the hose. One of the many reasons not to put away the garden tools just yet.

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Remind Me Again, What Good Are Gophers?

Author: Meera, October 27, 2013


Cecile Brunner forms an arch over a fountain, creating a quiet place for meditation

Cecile Brunner forms an arch over a statue of the Virgin Mary in one of the prettiest and most peaceful areas of my garden


The lovely Cecile Brunner rose that serves as the anchor for a small meditation garden on the northwest side of my little farmhouse suddenly appears yellowed, leafless, and lifeless. Honest to goodness, she looks like she’s croaked. It’s certainly a strange turn of events, since she had numerous new canes and the leaves were shiny and healthy only a week ago.


There is a small eruption of new dirt nearby–suggestive of moles (insect eaters) and gophers (vegetarians) and maybe voles–(voles eat roots but  don’t leave mounds). So my rose problem might actually be two-fold–either way–it’s underground.


I could dig and back fill those tunnels with dirt and maybe I should. I’ve heard you can break a leg stepping into a gopher hole and I’m not talking livestock here. I wonder if the vole and gopher are sharing a network of tunnels down there dead-ending in the gopher’s bunker.
I gave the poor rose a big drink of water as soon as I discovered her condition, not knowing what else to do. As I stood there, watering with hose in hand, I saw the earth around the rose’s root cave in. Seriously?


So I’m thinking there must be a one heck of a big tunnel. This is war! I decide to stick the hose right into the tunnel and fill it with as much water as that hole will hold . . . and then some.



You might expect purple iris to bloom around Easter but in late October?

You might expect purple iris to bloom around Easter but in late October?



Strangely, while I’m dealing with the rose problem, I look past the fresh dirt mound and notice that one of the Dutch purple irises in a bed of a hundred or more has broken into full bloom. What gives? Those beauties normally bloom around Easter. I wonder why the voles haven’t attacked the rhizomes of the irises.


The condition of the Cecile Brunner climbing rose breaks my heart. Maybe she’ll spring back to life to bloom again next spring. For now, I’ll clip the beautiful iris and tuck it into a vase with some roses from other bushes on the farmette.  That done, I’ll put an all-out effort into finding out  how to get rid of those underground buck-tooth bandits . . . for good. Feel free to leave me your ideas. I’ve tried almost everything I’ve read on the Internet.




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An Unwelcome Visitor for Brunch

Author: Meera, October 26, 2013



Yellow Jacket on my Sunday morning brunch plate

When this yellow jacket dropped in on my Sunday morning brunch plate, I took off


I welcome visits into my yard by honey bees–they are not interested in me or my plate of food (unless it has honey on it), but hornets, wasps, and yellow jackets are not welcome.


This past Sunday morning, I was enjoying a plate of food on my patio when a yellow jacket made an unwelcome appearance. These are the yellow and black predatory wasps you find on your soda cans and sweets at picnics. Some people call them “meat bees” but they are actually wasps.


What value are they to gardens, you might wonder. I did. Although I loathe them, I did a little research and discovered that yellow jackets are predators of insects that many of us gardeners consider pests. But try as I might, I just can’t make myself like yellow jackets. The females don’t just sting and die. They can sting multiple times. And wasp stings hurt.


About those stingers–they are like lances with barbs, injecting venom into you during a sting. The stings are not dangerous unless you happen to be stung repeatedly or you are allergic to bee and wasp stings. In that case, you might carry a epinephrine autoinjector (known as an EpiPen) in the event of a life-threatening sting to treat anaphylaxis.


Keep a lookout for yellow jackets in the spring when the queen seeks a place to construct a paper nest. These wasps (related to hornets) live in social colonies with female queens and workers, and also males, known as drones. They like to establish their nests in hollowed logs and human structures (like houses with holes for entry into attics or walls). They enjoy a diet rich in sugar and carbohydrates. Don’t we all? But take care when enjoying your al fresco Sunday brunch. You never know who might drop in!







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Those Entertaining Rascals, the Sparrows

Author: Meera, October 24, 2013


A white crown sparrow on the birdbath glances

A white crown sparrow on the birdbath studies food foraging options in the garden


I enjoy watching the sunrise over the hills that jut up between the inland valley of the East Bay, where I live, and the waters of the delta flowing down from Sacramento to dump into the Straits of Carquinez before entering the San Francisco Bay. A lot goes on in our backyard garden at sunrise.



With feeders filled with birdseed, all sorts of songbirds visit to eat before bathing in the bird bath perched in a raised bed of blooming geraniums, asparagus ferns, and foxglove flowers. The squirrels search feeders for sunflower seeds. And clusters of house sparrows twitter away as they forage for seeds, insects and other interesting morsels to devour.



These cutie pies descend to the lawn as soon as the sun is up. They bathe, drink, and eat, often stealing food from other birds. A robin with a beak full of worms better take heed of the presence of sparrows or those little cheep, cheep, cheepers will steal the food right out of the robin’s beak.



The sparrow’s thievery isn’t limited to food; no, it will also steal nesting material from each other’s nest. But these scrappy little fellows will just as readily engage in their birdbrain version of fisticuffs as they will dart into trees for cover.



Without a doubt, of all the birds that are visiting the garden of late, the sparrows provide hours of entertainment.


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Blending Your Own Herbs de Provence

Author: Meera, October 10, 2013


Herbs de provence is a blend of herbs found in the Provence region of France

The name Herbs de Provence originated about 40 years ago for a blend of herbs that grow in the Provence region of France



My fingers are lusciously scented this morning with the oils of rosemary, thyme, oregano, lavender, and mint that I’ve just gathered from my garden. Herbs play an important part in the seasoning of many foods of the world, including the blend famously known as Herbs de Provence. But did you know that you could make your own Herbs de Provence?


A basic blend that cooks in the south of France use often includes savory, fennel, basil, rosemary, and thyme. Americans associate lavender with Provence, so the commercial spice companies have blended lavender in as well for the American market. Depending on the cook, she might also add to the basic blend some sage, bay leaf, chervil, French tarragon, and even mint.


If you’d like to create your own blend, start with equal parts of the following dried herbs: thyme, rosemary, savory, marjoram, and chervil.  Judiciously add some lavender. Be equally cautious about adding fennel seeds and French tarragon, since both herbs taste of liquorice and can quickly overpower, even ruin, your mixture.


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Cool Season Plantings for Soup, Salad, and Pie

Author: Meera, October 3, 2013


French sugar pumpkin are small but perfect for pies

French sugar pumpkins are small to mid-size–perfect for pies



This time of year the French sugar pumpkins, persimmons and pomegranates are ready to harvest and that means it’s also time to plant cool season crops.




Summer onions have formed large heads and been harvested so need replacing

My summer onions formed large bulbs that I have already harvested; it’s time to replace them with bunching onions


Yesterday I turned the dirt in one of my large planting boxes, added in some aged manure and other soil amendments, and planted  red and yellow onions for soups and salads during the fall and winter. I harvested seed from my summer onions and during the winter months will grow the seed in flats for spring planting.



The cool days ahead are perfect soup days and that means carrots, fennel, cilantro, cauliflower, potatoes, and bok choy will also find a place in my fall and winter garden.



In other raised beds and boxes, I’m planting heirloom lettuces, radishes, and spinach. These traditional salad ingredients are best grown during the fall or early spring as hot weather tends to make them bolt.


The lettuce and peas and onions are already ready for our table

The lettuces are already easy to grow in boxes with good soil


The pumpkins are ready for pie-making and Halloween carving. The persimmons are perfect for custards or for eating fresh when absolutely ripe (otherwise, the fruits are so tart they will make you pucker). And those lovely red pomegranate seeds are delicious eaten raw or tossed into salads.



For a list of Northern California cool seasons vegetables, check out Sunset Magazine’s edible gardening guide at If you plant to purchase seed f0r your own cool season garden, I urge you to choose non-genetically modified  and open-pollinated seeds so that you can harvest.



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